On Culture, Trust, and Effective Teams

Over the weekend, I listened to a TED Radio Hour podcast titled The Meaning of Work.  The whole thing is worth a listen, but there was something in the first segment by Margaret Heffernan which really caught my attention:

Social capital is what gives companies momentum. And social capital is what makes companies robust. It means that time is everything because social capital compounds with time. So teams that work together longer get better because it takes time to build the trust you need for openness and candor. And it’s time that builds better value.

This is nothing new; it’s really what’s at the heart of DeMarco and Lister’s Peopleware.  It’s no surprise that what’s important to effective companies is effective teams; any sufficiently large undertaking requires a team of people that trust each other and align on the mission to succeed.   But I especially liked the term “social capital” as it succinctly encapsulates a concept that is so hard to quantify and easily taken for granted.  The entire podcast is worth your time and highly recommended.

This morning, I read a piece from Brian Chesky, one of the founders of Airbnb, titled Don’t Fuck Up the Culture.  The title references advice given to them from Peter Thiel (leave aside his politics for now) which I think dovetails nicely with Heffernan’s observation.  In particular, the second half which talks about why and how to build culture:

​By upholding our core values in everything we do. Culture is a thousand things, a thousand times. It’s living the core values when you hire; when you write an email; when you are working on a project; when you are walking in the hall. We have the power, by living the values, to build the culture. We also have the power, by breaking the values, to fuck up the culture. Each one of us has this opportunity, this burden.

Why is culture so important to a business? Here is a simple way to frame it. The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial. And if we have a company that is entrepreneurial in spirit, we will be able to take our next “(wo)man on the moon” leap. Ever notice how families or tribes don’t require much process? That is because there is such a strong trust and culture that it supersedes any process. In organizations (or even in a society) where culture is weak, you need an abundance of heavy, precise rules and processes.

There are days when it’s easy to feel the pressure of our own growth expectations. Other days when we need to ship product. Others still where we are dealing with the latest government relations issue. It’s easy to get consumed by these. And they are all very important. But compared to culture, they are relatively short-term. These problems will come and go. But culture is forever.

Chesky reinforces the inherent value in building trust and openness: agility.  When there is a strong culture and strong trust, teams and individuals are empowered to operate autonomously and given the responsibility to make decisions in alignment with the mission of the team and the company.  It’s a powerful concept that rejects this notion that people are fungible; that pieces can be replaced and the machinery will operate as smoothly as before.  For a sufficiently large machine, this may be true, but for small, highly effective, highly productive, high social capital teams, this type of mindset is a death knell.

Seen somewhere in an office building in Denmark.

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